Em-URGE-ing Voices

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Girls Can Fix Computers, Too

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January 13, 2015

Image from NASA, via Wikimedia Commons

Image from NASA, via Wikimedia Commons

Going back to school for me also means going back to work. Separate from my writing, I also work at a local computing help desk. My coworkers and I work under an overarching Information Technology department and on the day-to-day, we assist clients with account issues, software troubles and general computer problems.

Many of my coworkers want to have a career in a similar field—me, not so much—and our office is pretty evenly split with men and women, although the highest-ranking staff members are mostly men. However, despite the diversity of people that I work with, there’s a large stigma against women in IT. Such a stigma, in fact, that I wrote a research paper for one of my classes on the phenomenon.

Here’s the down and dirty: the help desk that I work at has a front area to assist clients, with two different lines—an account line, manned by an account specialist, and a computer line, which is manned by a technically trained consultant. If a male and female are working the front walkup area, clients will overwhelmingly assume that the male is the one who is technically trained.

My coworkers have told me stories of men looking over their shoulder to make sure the work was done correctly, or of clients asking, “Is there a man who can work on my computer? I really don’t feel comfortable having a woman messing with it.”

The issue isn’t specific to my workplace, either. Two months ago, The Daily Dot ran an article about the terribly sexist children’s book Barbie: I Can Be a Computer Engineer. The book seems like a great way to encourage young girls to go into male-dominated STEM—science, technology, engineering, math—subjects. Except that, well, it’s not.

First off, Barbie is designing a computer game with cute animals… because girls can only be interested in technology if it involves “typically” girly things, right? Plus, Barbie is only creating the design. She tells her sister, Skipper, that she’ll need help from a couple of boys, Steven and Brian, to turn it into a “real game.” Barbie is actually so tech-illiterate that she gives Skipper’s computer a virus; Skipper reacts by starting a pillow fight—not really an inspirational message to girls. Finally, when Steven and Brian show up, they tell Barbie that things will go faster if she lets them help—at least the book gave a good representation of the male ego.

The book buys into gender stereotypes and is so incredibly sexist. It turns out that Barbie really can’t be a computer engineer, as she needs the help of the all-knowing, all-powerful male to get her work done. Publishing books like this, especially directed to young girls, is incredibly dangerous as it reinforces the idea that women can’t be smart, or can’t work in STEM fields.

When women do enter the computer industry, they mostly remain at entry-level jobs. Men are more likely to pursue computer courses, though, as girls don’t see them as related to their careers. This ends up turning into a really terrible cycle for women. Information technology is seen as a “boy’s club” and as an unwelcome environment for women, so women don’t pursue careers in technology, so IT stays male-dominated. The few women who do break through are undermined by male coworkers—the Stevens and Brians of the workplace—and aren’t trusted by clients as much as male employees.

This needs to change. I might be biased because I actually do work with computers for a living, but our girls are smart, our girls can be technologically inclined, our girls can do whatever and study whatever they want to. As a society, we need to support women and their choices—whether that be a decision about contraception, about how to raise their children, or simply about pursuing a job in a STEM field.

Here’s a good note to end on, though: The Barbie book was met with such opposition that a few girls actually remade it to be more empowering to young girls. I recommend reading the remixed version; it’s an awesome reminder that women can kick ass and be successful in STEM fields.

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